Editorial: Return to ECan democracy good, but election gap too long
Editorial: After failing to fulfil a promise to return Environment Canterbury to a fully elected body at the last local-body election in 2013, the Government has now made a commitment that full elections for the council will be held in 2019. That will be nine years since the last elected body was summarily dismissed and commissioners appointed. In the meantime, the next election will return a council that will have a majority of elected members, but will still have appointed commissioners.
Nine years is too long for a body with such wide powers - including the power to raise rates, affecting the lives of practically every resident in its area - to go without an election. The return of democracy is nevertheless to be welcomed.
It is a notable retreat from a Government proposal made as recently as March to have a mixed governance model at the next election and to retain it indefinitely. According to Environment Minister Nick Smith, six of Canterbury's local councils, all of them rural, favoured the retention of the mixed representation model as a transition but with a return to elections in 2019. Only one, the Christchurch City Council, favoured either a return to fully elected membership of ECan at the next election or the creation of a new separate Canterbury water authority. The idea of a separate water authority was first floated by the review into ECan conducted just before its members were sacked but it is clearly now off the agenda.
Allocation of water is ECan's single most important function and was, of course, one of the issues at the heart of the strife that led to the Government stepping in. Many Canterbury people may not be aware of it, but about 70 per cent of New Zealand's freshwater resource is in the Canterbury region. Competition for its use has become intense. The group that conducted the review of ECan just before its sacking said it "was struck by the 'gap' between 'what needs to be done' to appropriately manage water and 'ECan's capability to do so'."
Announcing the new governance proposals, Smith praised the work of the appointed commissioners, particularly on water. He said they had made huge progress in taking ECan from being a laggard in setting limits on water takes and nutrients. He did not mention that much of the plan the commissioners have been working from was created by ECan before the elected members were sacked and that the commissioners were assisted by special powers they were granted that had been denied to the previous council.
Nonetheless, the commissioners, an accomplished group presided over by Dame Margaret Bazley, do appear to have functioned well. Contrary to many fears, they have not ridden roughshod over people's rights and have worked hard at building relationships with all interested parties. The absence of sniping from other councils may have helped. The good performance does not justify the sacking of the elected members but it does make the consequences less unacceptable.
The challenge now will be to make sure that any progress that has been made under the commissioners is not lost again with the return to elections.